On the first evening of the Sierra Spring Event, a spirited presentation of TimeShift was followed by an endless video loop that showcased the biggest and brightest of the Sierra release portfolio. Among the titles shown were a handful of shooters, a pair of real-time strategy entries, and the ever-popular massively multiplayer online basketball sim (MMOBBS) from Korea. You know, the usual. But the game that stood out the most amongst all the carnage and online dribbling was a quirky, tile-based board game adaptation for the Xbox Live Arcade.
That game is Carcassonne, and if it reminds you a bit of the recently released Catan, don't worry — you haven't lost your mind (just yet). According to Isaac Barry, game designer at Sierra Online, both are based on "marquee new-wave German board games." If, like me, you haven't been keeping track of the various generations of German board games, worry not. Carcassonne for the Xbox Live Arcade takes the "board" out of the "board game" without taking the style and sensibility of the board game out of the game. Are you still with me?
For history's sake, let's take a look at the origins of Carcassonne. Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and initially released in 2000, Carcassonne received a huge boost in 2001 when it was awarded the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), which Barry describes as "the Academy Award for board games." The game eventually found a worldwide audience, and though mainstream demand for board games in America seems to be at an all-time low, downloadable games are all the rage. However, those making the transition from the physical version should have no reason for concern about the forthcoming digital release.
"Because of the fact that there are so many loyal Carcassonne fans, the first and foremost ethic behind the design is that we don't change anything," said Barry. This design ethic starts with the cel-shaded visuals, which resemble the hand-drawn game pieces of the board game, but it also extends to the play experience, as it offers support for five players over Xbox Live and four via local multiplayer. To help make up for the lack of physical interaction, the game will feature Xbox Live Vision and headset support. With slight differences between the American and international rule sets, both options will be included, though the American rules will be set to default.
The game begins with a single tile automatically placed at the center of the game map, and each subsequent turn finds a player drawing and placing one of the 71 other tiles. Every tile has some sort of terrain or piece of a structure on it, and any side of the tile can be connected to another tile of the board, so long as the connecting sides match up. Roads must connect to other roads and city walls must match up, eventually creating a closed structure. Also in play are monasteries, which exist on a single tile, but are only considered complete when surrounded by eight other tiles.
Each player has seven followers (commonly known as "meeples"), and the placement of a follower determines who earns the points on a particular feature once it is completed. The followers never expire — they will either be in your possession or on the board. If you place a follower on a partial city, you will gain it back once the city is completed. Scoring in Carcassonne is all about follower placement, so players must strike a fine balance between unleashing all of their followers in quick succession and hoarding them for a feature that may never come up. The player that has the most followers on a feature when it is completed will earn all of the points for it.
Carcassonne looks to be a very beginner-friendly experience, as a hands-on tutorial will walk players through the rules and the main game will offer placement hints after a tile is drawn. As with Catan, it all seems a bit daunting at first, but the concepts fall into place within a few minutes, and most players should start noticing the subtle nuances of the gameplay the second or third time around. While a physical game of Carcassonne can take upwards of 45 minutes to complete, the Xbox Live Arcade edition should take only 15-25 minutes, depending on player skill levels. Once all the tiles are placed, the final scoring takes place, and the gloating commences.
Like the board game, the Xbox Live Arcade version of Carcassonne will likely play host to several expansion packs. Three will be made available on day one, with one included with the initial download. The River is the complementary expansion, and it provides a dozen extra tiles that must be formed together to craft a large river in the middle of the game map. While The River spreads out the placement of features, it also creates a more difficult experience for gamers in search of an additional challenge. The King and the Baron and The River II packs will be available to purchase in June, and each adds a new wrinkle to the gameplay in the form of additional tiles or rules.
No exact date or price point is available for Carcassonne, but if its spiritual predecessor Catan is any indication, it will hopefully cost no more than 800 points. I'll admit — I knew nothing of the board game prior to last month, but after playing both Catan and Carcassonne, I am a full-fledged fan of digital German new-wave board game adaptations. Carcassonne is expected to lay down foundations on the Xbox Live Marketplace in June, along with its first three expansion packs. No other expansions or platforms have been announced for the game, as the company will wait to gauge consumer interest before making future plans.
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